Rex Tillerson says the previous US policy of “strategic patience” towards North Korea has failed and a new approach is needed.
Few would disagree with that.
But the question is what comes next?
According to Secretary Tillerson, all options are on the table, including pre-emptive military strikes (presumably this also includes direct or indirect talks, though this is a much less headline-grabbing idea).
He has yet to lay out much more of his thinking, and this was billed as a “listening tour”, but if we go on the basis of his boss’ Twitter feed, a key component of the trump administration strategy on North Korea appears to be: get China to do more.
President Trump has previously complained that China “won’t help with North Korea. Nice!”.
On Friday, on the eve of this visit, he tweet-grumbled again that North Korea was “behaving very badly” and “China has done little to help”.
There are a few problems with this get China to do it approach.
Firstly, it seems to be predicated on the notion that China could easily solve this if it wanted to.
The two countries are treaty allies, but relations have cooled under Kim Jong-Un, and it is by no means clear that the young dictator has much interest in listening to Beijing’s advice.
North Korea is behaving very badly. They have been “playing” the United States for years. China has done little to help!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 17, 2017
China could cut off the economic lifelines tomorrow, and has already said it will stop buying North Korea’s coal, but this might not have had a desired effect.
Certainly, they could make life much harder for the civilian population, but arguably the more threatened and less secure the regime feels, the more likely it may be to cling to its nuclear “deterrent”.
Kim Jong-Un has learned from the fate of Saddam and Gaddafi what happens when you give up your nukes.
Then there is the issue of THAAD – the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence missile shield the United States has begun deploying to South Korea – to the fury of Beijing.
Despite assurances that this is a defensive system, focused on North Korea, China says the accompanying radar would be able to penetrate deep into Chinese territory, compromising its own defences.
Beijing has demanded Washington immediately cease and desist its deployment of THAAD and is unlikely to be in much of a mood to help unless and until this happens.
And while the US might like to see itself as the responsible world policeman on this issue, condemning Kim Jong-Un’s pariah regime, China’s leadership says there is fault on both sides.
Foreign Minister Wang Yi has characterised the US and North Korea as two trains accelerating towards each other, with neither willing to give way, headed towards a catastrophic head-on collision.
“Our priority is to flash the red light and apply the brakes on both trains,” he explained recently.
In this scenario, China is not the problem, it is the responsible, concerned signalman – doing its best to avert a disaster while the US and North Korea should both bear responsibility for egging each other on.
Instead of talking about pre-emptive strikes, Beijing is calling for a suspension-for-suspension approach: the US and South Korea suspend military exercises, and North Korea suspends missile tests.
To be fair to Secretary Tillerson and President Trump, there are no easy answers on this; successive US administrations before them have tried and failed.
But the situation is becoming increasingly urgent, and their new approach is going to have to be quite a lot more sophisticated than just getting China to do more.